Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, 6 December 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6.
For whatever reason, the thoughts that I had about this piece never quite came together like I thought they would. But the words of John the Baptizer, written in Luke, still echo in my mind and I wonder if it is even possible to fill all the valleys and make the crooked roads straight.
Of course, if you have read my previous pieces, “Pound Gap, VA” and “Who Is the Messenger?”, then you know that I have seen the valley filled and roads made straight. The pictures of the Pine Mountain after it was cut are posted at http://strata.geol.sc.edu/Appalachian/PoundGap/Appalachian_galleryPoundGap1.html.
The things that I have come to understand with my encounter with this construction are that 1) it took a lot of work to fill the valleys and straighten the road and 2) things changed because it was done. The landscape of that area of Letcher County, Kentucky, is not the same as it was (and that may have been why it took so long for me to realize that I had been there once before).
The changes in the roads did make it easier for those passing through to get through the area. I cannot speak to the changes in the ecology of the area or if it did make driving for the area residents any easier. It made it perhaps a little easier for those who drive through the area to ignore the small towns and hollows where the people lived.
But when John the Baptizer was wandering the hills and valleys of the Galilee, he was making it easier for the people to know that the Messiah was coming. He was making it easier for everyone to see the Salvation of God. In a day and age when so many people were forgotten by society, the Baptizer’s voice told them there was a way.
But in today’s society, it seems that we have regressed to the time before the Baptizer’s call. It seems as if we think that one human life has no meaning. We are faced with war and we answer with more war. We are faced with a crisis in healthcare and we answer with politics and platitudes. The number of hungry families, not individuals but families, increases almost everyday, our food banks are stressed, the number of people without jobs is almost at an all-time high and all we have done over the past twenty years is give money to those who have money and hope that they will share it with others. We are not interested in making the rough way smooth, we are not interested in getting the people trapped in the valleys out nor are we interested in the hearing the voice which cries out in the wilderness.
We are a society in which the only individual we will show any interest in is one who is rich and famous and who has committed a grievous error of judgment. We are fighting a war in Afghanistan and we are apparently committed to sending more troops there. But we care very little that we do not have the manpower for this operation and that we are sending troops back for their 3rd or 4th deployment; we care little about the rising number of suicides among our troops because of the stress of these continued deployments and redeployments; we care very little for the effect that this has had on the families of the troops. And the evidence is there that we don’t care about the troops when they come home. The number of homeless veterans is on the rise. Our troops have become a throw-away commodity in a throw-away society. We use them until they are no longer useful and then we thrown them away in hopes of finding new replacements.
The answer to the problem is not the draft or invoking the call for national service. We tried both and both have failed (of course, calling for the people to go out and shop in the name of national security seemed a little ludicrous at the time as did giving them $250 to spend when the $2000 mortgage was due).
How can we say that sending more troops is the answer when it didn’t work in Viet Nam and we know what has happened to foreign armies fighting in Afghanistan in the past? How can fighting more war help those who are oppressed by corrupt governments and war lords? And why, why does this country insist on propping up those corrupt and oppressive governments? Why do we train their troops when they will use the training against the people in their country who oppose the government, not the terrorists who fight us?
More troops, more money spent on armaments, more time spent supporting corrupt and oppressive regimes will only lead this country deep into the valleys where it is impossible to escape. And while we are spending more money and time trying to find our way out of that morass, more and more innocent people are lost.
And it isn’t just the civilian population of Afghanistan that suffer. There are 38 conflicts presently in process around the globe.
The United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varying degrees of intensity.
Most of these are civil or “intrastate” wars, fueled as much by racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as by ideological fervor. Most victims are civilians, a feature that distinguishes modern conflicts. During World War I, civilians made up fewer than 5 percent of all casualties. Today, 75 percent or more of those killed or wounded in wars are non-combatants.
Africa, to a greater extent than any other continent, is afflicted by war. Africa has been marred by more than 20 major civil wars since 1960. Rwanda, Somalia, Angola, Sudan, Liberia, and Burundi are among those countries that have recently suffered serious armed conflict.
War has caused untold economic and social damage to the countries of Africa. Food production is impossible in conflict areas, and famine often results. Widespread conflict has condemned many of Africa’s children to lives of misery and, in certain cases, has threatened the existence of traditional African cultures.
Conflict prevention, mediation, humanitarian intervention and demobilization are among the tools needed to underwrite the success of development assistance programs. Nutrition and education programs, for example, cannot succeed in a nation at war. Billions of dollars of development assistance have been virtually wasted in war-ravaged countries such as Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan.
Of course, I will disagree with that last statement if only because the monies that are wasted are lost in the bureaucracy of the government and have little impact on the people that it was intended to reach. And that is the point; it has to be the people who get the aid, not the government.
There was a thought back in the 1960s that the single most powerful foreign aid program this country had ever developed was the Peace Corps. It was a program that sent volunteers into the countryside of the various countries and it had an impact on the countries, not to mention the people. It has been said that many countries, while spouting an anti-American line in public, were privately asking for the Peace Corps volunteers. But because it didn’t fit the mold, it didn’t have the glory that other programs might have had so we don’t hear much about it these days.
If we were to spend as much on people, both here and abroad, as we do on weapons systems and military-oriented bureaucracies, perhaps we could make a difference in this world. But we don’t care for the people, either here or abroad.
We argue for healthcare reform but we focus on the cost instead of the people. And I fear that the result of the political theater that Congress has become will result in the rich having coverage, the middle class getting it but at a cost beyond their means and the poor having little or none. Yes, healthcare reform today will cost a lot of money but that is because we have neglected and fought against the reform for so many years. And if we are going to argue for savings, how much do we save if we make sure that all who get sick get the care that they need?
It should be clear that the old ways don’t work. And just like the project to straighten out the road that passes through the Pound Gap took a lot of time and a lot of money, so will any project that focuses on the people and not the system. And, yes, there are going to be those in power, both left and right, who are going to fight against the change. They know of what the prophet Malachi speaks in today’s reading from the Old Testament. They know that the change that is coming will destroy them; that they will be lost in the fire that purifies the gold.
When Malachi made his call, the people were indifferent and apathetic. When Malachi challenged them, they responded with the type of Christianity that we see today. It is the response that we are a Christian nation because we go to church and it doesn’t matter that we don’t heed Christ’s words to feed the hungry and we ignore the oppressed and we don’t care if the sick get health care. When confronted with their own sins and greed, the people denied them.
My Advent reading for today (I am writing this on Saturday, the 5th) comes from the booklet “Love Finds a Voice in Bethlehem” (by Peter Mead and based on the writings of Roger R. Sonnenberg).
From the fruit of the mouth one’s stomach is satisfied; the yield of the lips brings satisfaction. Death and life are the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18: 20 – 21
Words have power, Lord, MY words. The things I say matter — to you and to those around me. They mean something. The writer of Proverbs, the gatherer of wisdom, knew their power — the awful, awesome power of death and life. The things I say can kill an idea . . . can kill a relationship . . . can kill the spirit of those toward whom I recklessly shoot off my mouth. The things I say can encourage creativity . . . can enliven a friendship . . . can affirm life and light and love in those toward whom I offer a tender word. Send your Christmas angels to guard my rebel tongue. Then I will shout loud “glory” to you, and “peace” to those around me. Teach me the love language of AFFIRMATION.
Words do matter. It is time to speak up, to say we cannot forget the people. It is a cry that John Wesley spoke some two hundred years ago when the church and society cast aside and forgot the many in favor of the few. It is a cry that should be heard in this country and around the world today.
We read the words of Paul who saw the impossible take place in Philippi. Philippi was a culturally diverse city, yet the people came together in the name of Christ and worked in the name of Christ. Paul’s words today are a shout of acclamation that the work of Christ was continued, not just on Sunday but on every day of the week.
There are those who scoff at the idea that the valleys can be filled, the road made straight. This is the way that things are and that is what we have to do. But how long can we support, let alone fight a war? Sooner or later we will have no youth to send off to battle. Who will send then; the old? Must we lose a generation before we find peace?
How long can we let the sick get sicker and those who can work go without work? Shall the profits for the few mean more than the riches of the many?
The work is before us. The work can be done; it is possible. It begins when each individual hears the cry of the Baptizer to change their ways, to repent and begin anew, to cast aside their past and be cleansed by the Holy Fire. It will take work because we are so accustomed to our previous ways. But it is possible and it must be done, for if we don’t it will be each one of us who becomes the lost and forgotten.